Exercise

■ Find a child to whom you could tell a story.

■ Observe your own experience of telling and the experience for the listener.

9. Observe Your Listener

Milton Erickson, the master of metaphor therapy, when asked what he considered the three most important variables of therapy, is said to have replied, "Observe, observe, observe." When you feel confident telling stories to children and teenagers (whether to one or a group), start to observe their behavior. See what holds their attention, be aware of when they start to lose focus, see how you can regain that attention, and observe the impact of your tale. Find other listeners. Observe the different responses to your story from individual to individual, and group to group. Fortunately, children tend to be more expressive and less socially constrained than adults. During your storytelling, they may be attentive, wriggly, or easily distracted, or may interrupt with questions, displaying a good amount of observable responses as to whether they are interested, bored, or excited by the tale. The observation of these responses offers vital clues about how to adapt your tale.

For more than twenty years, I have participated in a regular radio talk show and, in all that time, there is something that has not gotten any easier for me—hearing people's voices through the headphones and not being able to observe the expressions on their faces, or the look in their eyes. It is similar to trying to define the emotion behind the words in an e-mail, at times. That is because we communicate with more than our words. Take away the words—which is what happens when you have a silent listener—and you have the reverse of my radio experience. You have only the expressions. Herein will lie the cues and feedback as to how your story is being received.

Observe that feedback. How connected is the child with you and your story? Is his (or her) gaze one of fixed and unbroken attention? Does his respiration match the pace and emotion of the tale? Have his bodily movements slowed so the child is less fidgety or active than before this story began?

If attention is distracted, gaze wanders away from the storyteller, or fidgeting increases, these are signs for the storyteller to examine his or her own behavior. Am I telling too much? Am I not communicating enough? Does the story need more or less involvement of senses and emotions? What is relevant for my listener? What needs to be expanded and what needs to be deleted? Does the character fit or need to be changed? Is the story too close for comfort, or too removed to be relevant?

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